The Iran-Israel face-off gave an eerie glimpse of how dangerously close a polarised international community might be to a Third World War.

Siddhartha Tripathy

Mahatma Gandhi had famously said that an eye for an eye would make the whole world go blind. The international community well remembers how his policy of nonviolence eventually brought about a slow but sure end to the mighty British Raj in the subcontinent and saw the birth of India as an independent nation by the middle of the 20th century. Yet, now in the 21st century, there is no dearth of places or situations on this planet where the tit-for-tat mindset is threatening to prevail.

The Israel-Hamas war – ongoing since Hamas-led Palestinian militant groups launched a barbaric attack in southern Israel on 7 October 2023 – had been the starkest example of that phenomenon until last month. That attack, which Hamas claimed to be a response to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, led to the death of 1139 Israelis and foreign nationals and saw some 253 more taken captive to the Gaza Strip. And after the start of Israel’s retaliatory operation, nearly 34,000 Palestinians have been killed, with thousands more missing and around 2 million displaced in their homeland.

While Israeli forces have destroyed more than half of Gaza Strip’s houses, hundreds of cultural landmarks, a third of its tree cover, large swathes of agricultural land and many cemeteries since their October 27 ground invasion, protests have erupted across the world – especially in Islamic nations and the Global South – calling for a ceasefire and an end to Israeli occupation. Yet, thanks to the support that Israel has been receiving from the United States and its Western allies, both in the battlefield and the United Nations, a conclusion to this bloody conflict is nowhere on the horizon.

This has by and large been a battle between a handful of entities – just another gruesome chapter of the centuries-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict that spawned as many as five wars since as recently as 2006 – and there was no real fear of it going anywhere beyond a limited region in the Middle East.

But things took a turn for the worse on April 1 this year, when an Israeli airstrike destroyed an Iranian consulate building on the premises of Iran’s embassy in Damascus, Syria, killing 16 people including a senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) elite Quds Force, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, and seven other IRGC officers.

It is no secret that Tel Aviv and Tehran have been engaged in a proxy conflict since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Once allies, when they saw Sunni-dominated Arab states as a common threat, the two nations – now extremely antagonistic to each other – have had a rather complex relationship. Shia-dominated Iran has supported the Palestinian cause, backing Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah militants in Syria and Lebanon. For the past many years, it has maintained a military presence in Syria from where Hezbollah and allied militants support Palestinian forces. Tel Aviv, on the other hand, sees Tehran’s one-nation stance on the Israel-Palestine issue as an existential threat and has hence supported Iranian rebels, sought international measures to stop Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons and even assassinated many Iranian nuclear scientists.

In 2018, five years into the still continuing Syrian civil war, this proxy conflict turned into a direct one of sorts as Iran’s involvement in Syria kept rising and Israeli Air Force increasingly targeted convoys carrying Iranian weapon shipments to anti-Israeli forces.

However, by striking at the Iranian embassy in Damascus last month and causing multiple casualties, Israel apparently crossed the proverbial Rubicon. A deadly attack on a country’s embassy or consulate is in the very least seen as an insult to its sovereignty and dignity if not tantamount to declaring war on it. No wonder Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei openly vowed to punish “the malicious Zionist regime”. Despite being warned by the United States and its Western allies, as well as by Tel Aviv, that a retaliatory attack on Israel would lead to a military response – possibly on Iranian soil – from their side, Tehran was not to be stopped from reasserting its position as one of the strongest military powers in Western Asia.

Yet it clearly did not act impulsively. Iran used the subsequent dozen days to convey some specific messages to a few nations. It warned that American military bases in the region would be attacked if the US joined Israel in the event of an imminent attack from Iran. Tehran also conveyed beforehand through diplomatic channels that it was not interested in waging a full-blown war against Israel.

Having done that, Iran – in coordination with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants, Yemeni Houthis and Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces – launched its first direct attack (from its own territory) against Israel in the evening of April 13. Involving some 170 drones, over 120 ballistic missiles and more than 30 cruise missiles, all directed at Israel and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, this was the largest attack of its kind in modern-day warfare. Iran had never conducted a missile attack of this scale in its military history and this was also the largest drone attack that the world had ever seen.

Luckily, Israel was able to use its superior military systems and air force to successfully defend itself by downing the drones and intercepting the missiles well outside its borders, mostly over Syrian and Jordanian airspaces. It was also fortunate to have the US, UK, France and Jordan provide a multi-national defence shield from southern Persian Gulf to northern Iraq that intercepted most Iranian weapons crossing the region.

While both Iran and Israel made contradicting claims about the damage inflicted by the attack, with the former playing it up and the latter downplaying it, it eventually emerged that a few Iranian missiles had indeed managed to hit two airbases – Nevatim and Ramon – and damaged some storage facilities, a transport aircraft and a little-used runway. Although no casualties were reported, a seven-year-old Bedouin girl was seriously injured by a shrapnel and over 30 others were being treated for minor injuries and anxiety.

Not surprisingly, the US, its allies across the world and the United Nations condemned Iran’s strike against Israel. While the Western media declared that the attack was a military failure and an embarrassing miscalculation on the part of Tehran, world leaders convened at the G7 Foreign Ministers meeting in Capri (Italy) and decided to impose sanctions on Iranian military figures and entities as they urged the international community to do the same.

It is important to note that the US sent out mixed signals on this front by openly reiterating its resolve to support Israel against Iran no matter how the cookie crumbled. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also called on Tel Aviv to apprise the US in advance of any planned attack on Iran. Nevertheless, the overarching message that the US sent to Israel was one that was certainly in favour of preventing any further escalation between the two West Asian countries.

But this did not stop a predictably indignant Israel from vowing to give a befitting reply to Iran’s retaliation. Despite President Joe Biden having told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu that the US will not back him if he decided to launch a counterattack against Iran. Or after Jordanian Prime Minister Bisher Khasawneh called for all parties involved to defuse the situation as he warned that a regional conflagration may take the world on “dangerous paths”. And despite Iran having sent out a clear set of messages through its envoy to the UN: that its retaliation could be “deemed concluded” with its April 13 military operation; that Iran was not interested in waging a full-fledged war; and that any Israeli counter-operation would meet with a “stronger and more resolute” reaction from Iran and may even compel it to deploy “weapons never used before”.

Just like the US, Russia – a long-time ally and a strong defence partner of Iran – also made efforts in no small measure to de-escalate the conflict.

First, it had warned the US against actively joining the Iran-Israel conflict. When the US started releasing reports about how it was intercepting Iranian missiles headed towards Israel, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent out a message that if President Biden supported Israel, Russia would “not sit idle and do nothing”. Then, through its Permanent Representative at the UN Security Council, Moscow accused the body of double standards and decried the UNSC’s inaction on Israel’s attack on the Iranian consulate in Syria even as it pressed upon the urgent need to end the tension and bloodshed in the Middle East. Soon after that, the Kremlin also issued a message from President Putin where he urged all sides to show restraint and warned that more rounds of such confrontation could have “catastrophic consequences for the entire region”.

During their conversation, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi reportedly assured President Putin that Iran’s attacks on Israel were “forced and limited” and that Tehran was not keen on further escalation of tensions. The Kremlin also confirmed that both Iran and Russia considered the Israel-Palestine issue as the root cause of unrest in the Middle East and were keen on an immediate ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.

However, none of these efforts and opinions seemed to make much of a difference as Netanyahu declared on April 17 that Israel would make its own decisions about how it would respond to Iran’s attack. Sure enough, within 36 hours of his statement, Israel conducted drone strikes on Iranian soil. Although Israel targeted Isfahan (a province in Central Iran known for its nuclear sites and home to a drone-manufacturing facility and a major airbase), its strikes were fortunately short-lived. There were no more than three missile attacks made and not a single nuclear site had been affected.

Some experts are of the view that the entire operation by Israel was meant to send a message to Tehran that Israel was capable of attacking its nuclear sites but was exercising restraint. They suggest that the operation was orchestrated to reinforce the notion of Israel’s deterrence prowess without provoking an immediate retaliation from Iran and precipitating a broader conflict in the Middle East.

Concurrently, it was later reported, Israel had also shot missiles at military positions in southern Syria and had even violated Iraqi airspace while launching its strikes on Iran.

At the time of writing, Tehran downplayed Israel’s strike and acknowledged that those had not caused any damage or casualty. However, its Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian warned Tel Aviv that if Israel acts against Iran’s interests, Tehran will respond immediately at the “maximum level” and will make Israel regret its action.

Apart from their aggressive leadership, what complicates the volatile situation between these two West Asian nations is the way their military capabilities stack up against each other.

Israel’s defence budget of US$24 billion is more than two and a half times that of Iran. The Jewish nation is backed by superior military technologies – such as its cutting-edge aerial defence system including the Iron Dome, Arrow, David’s Sling and The Patriot – not to mention the mighty United States and its allies.

In terms of airpower, Israel outclasses Iran. As per the Global Firepower Index, Israel has a total of 612 aircraft, compared to Iran’s 551. Israel’s air force has the most modern warplanes such as F-15s, F-16s, and F-35s. In stark contrast, Iran’s air force is the weakest link in its defence chain. Much of its fleet of warplanes is over five decades old. Excluding the few Sukhoi-24s purchased from Russia during the early nineties, the rest were bought from the US before the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and many remain grounded now for the want of spare parts. With 37,000 personnel, Iran’s air force has remained deprived of high-tech military equipment thanks to decades of international sanctions.

Israel also holds an edge over Iran in terms of nuclear power. The Jewish nation is known to be in possession of some 80 nuclear weapons while Iran does not have any (although, what with its uranium mines and nuclear facilities, it is widely believed to be within touching distance of having some if and when it really needs).

However, Iran makes up for these weaknesses with some redoubtable strength areas that have kept US and Israel from attacking it despite their longstanding hostilities.

For one, Iran’s armed forces are one of the largest in the Middle East, with some 580,000 active-duty personnel and around 200,000 trained reserve personnel divvied up between the traditional army and the IRGC. These numbers are considerably higher than Israel’s 1,69,500 active military personnel, (although Israel does have 4,65,000 people in its reserve forces, with 8,000 making up for its paramilitary). Being 80 times the size and having 10 times the population of Israel, Iran has the luxury of picking and choosing from a much wider pool of people. The IRGC also runs Iran’s elite Quds Force, which arms, supports and trains a network of militants across the Middle East, known as the “Axis of Resistance”.

Equally importantly, Iran boasts one of the largest arsenals of missiles and drones in the Middle East. This includes anti-ship missiles, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles with ranges up to 2,000 kilometres – sufficient to hit any target in West Asia, including Israel. In fact, Iran is on its way to becoming a defence production hub and a drone manufacturing capital. While Russia is already using Iran-made drones in its war with Ukraine, Sudan also seems to have followed suit.

Iran also has a stronger naval presence, with its 101-strong fleet heavily outnumbering Israel’s 67. Besides, Iran has 19 submarines, about four times that of Israel’s five. On land, too, Iran appears to have more firepower with nearly 2000 tanks compared to Israel’s 1370. However, it is important to note that Israel has far more advanced tanks such as the Merkava, which is widely considered to be among the best designed and most heavily armoured combat vehicles in the world.

All said and done, with their respective strengths and relative weaknesses, neither of the two countries can be said to be more than a match for the other. If Israel and Iran get engaged in a full-blown war in the near future, which still does not seem like an impossibility at the moment, it will most likely be a long-drawn affair.

The longer it lasts, the higher will be the possibility of their respective allies joining in. If Israel will have the US and the West behind it, Iran can surely count on its Axis of Resistance and, of course, on old-friend Russia to back it up if and when push comes to shove.

The inevitable outcome of such a situation will be heightened tension and unrest not just across but well beyond the Middle East, which will be reflected in skyrocketing global crude prices, mounting inflation and eventually a downward-spiralling world economy. Even the current levels of limited conflict between Israel and Iran have seen gold and energy prices head upwards and stock markets go downwards. With India fulfilling around 85 percent of its energy needs through imported crude oil as the world’s third largest consumer of fuel, its equity market strongly felt the heat of the Israel-Iran showdown as the BSE Sensex fell by 1157 points, or 1.56%, during the April 12-19 period.

Fortunately, the dust seems to have settled on the Iran-Israel front – but, if history is any indication, they could have gone in a far more terrifying direction. The two World Wars from the last century have shown what can happen when tempers get frayed and certain lines are crossed in a polarised and heavily armed world. Would the First World War have happened had young Bosnian-Serbian freedom fighter Gavrilo Princip not assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in 1914? Would World War II have taken place had Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany not invaded Poland in 1939?

No one can correctly guess or guarantee what will happen if powerful countries like Israel and Iran, and their respective allies, get into the kind of explosive exchanges they have in the near past. The more such confrontations, though, the greater will be the probability and risk of disastrous consequences at a global level. An old biblical saying goes, “Even a tiny spark can set a whole forest on fire.” If the nuclear-armed world of today gets into the habit of playing the tit-for-tat or an-eye-for-an-eye game the way it seems to be doing, there will be no winners in the end. Just like Gandhi said.

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